The Pittsburgh Steelers know all too well about a player up there in age but continuing to dominate at a position where that’s not necessarily normal.
Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward continues to get better and better and at 34 years old still looks like he has a lot of great football ahead of him. GM Omar Khan, Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are banking on 32-year-old cornerback Patrick Peterson — he turns 33 in July — being the next in line for the black and gold defensively that doesn’t age, at least on the field in terms of production.
Entering his age 33 season, Peterson is coming off of a career high in snaps played and recorded five interceptions last season. While it’s a curious fit in Pittsburgh with Peterson going from a zone-heavy scheme in Minnesota to a man-heavy scheme in Pittsburgh, former NFL defensive back and current NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks believes that Peterson’s football IQ, instincts and diagnostic skills — much like fellow veteran defensive back Stephen Gilmore now with the Cowboys — will help him continue to play at a high level in his new digs.
“They dominated opponents utilizing their superior physical gifts as youngsters and now collect wins on the perimeter due to their exceptional football IQs, instincts and diagnostic skills, which has caused two NFL teams to prioritize the vets and their skill sets this offseason,” Brooks writes regarding Peterson for NFL.com Tuesday. “Peterson was also impressive in coverage in the Minnesota Vikings’ zone-based scheme. He was free to play with vision due to some walked-off alignments and deep-area assignments given to the corners. Though Peterson was comfortable playing nose-to-nose in critical moments, his ability to play from depth enabled him to make more plays on tipped or overthrown balls due to his vision and positioning. He made five interceptions in 2022, his most since 2012, when he had a career-high seven.”
The coverage numbers are a bit of a concern since Peterson played zone coverage 76% of the time last season in Minnesota, one of the heaviest zone-coverage teams in the league, whereas the Steelers played the fifth-most man coverage last season. But, as Brooks points out, he was able to play man-to-man in crucial moments and more than held his own.
Numbers from NextGenStats backs that up, too.
Peterson remains extremely confident in his abilities, and knows he’s more advanced mentally than physically at this point. Shortly after signing with the Steelers he stated that while he might be a step slower now, nothing will surprise him because he’s seen it all and prepared for it all.
One of the reasons Pittsburgh brought Peterson in was also to be a leader. The team lost a leader in the secondary when cornerback Cameron Sutton signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Lions, and the cornerback room needed that steady, veteran presence. Enter Peterson, who might be one of the best leaders in the game of football today.
Last year, he held weekly film reviews over dinner with his younger teammates, and he’ll bring wisdom to a young Steelers cornerback room that’s likely to get younger with an early selection of a cornerback in the upcoming NFL Draft. Tomlin also touched upon Peterson’s leadership ability.
“You’re talking about a veteran guy that a lot of these guys grew up admiring and his style of play. They’ll get an opportunity to be around him day-to-day and see that none of it is mystical. That it’s very scientific, how he builds his preparedness in that his love and respect and appreciation for the game is continually on display in his prep,” Tomlin said to Steelers.com’s Max Starks in an interview for the team website from the owners meetings in Arizona. “I’m just so excited about him just doing what he normally does, but providing a visual image for younger players to be a blueprint, if you will.”
While he doesn’t have the same physical tools he once had after being a first-round pick out of LSU all those years ago, Peterson has seen it all and done it all in the NFL to this point. Nothing will fool him. He’s going to win with his football IQ, diagnostic skills and his high-end instincts.
Possessing those three skillsets will help Peterson continue to play well, and will also rub off on the rest of the cornerback room with Peterson in that mentorship role the Steelers brought him in to hold down.